Democracy in Nepal : Its uncharted course

The future of electoral politics and democracy in Nepal will depend on the extent to which citizens’ demands are understood and redefined. Whether the major parties move toward the centre of political spectrum or yet another breed of parties emerge, the sultanistic regime of Koirala is coming to an end. That, one may reasonably expect, will end an era of patronage that fostered clientelist and arbitrary decision-making. But a new Nepal cannot materialise without extensive cooperation between all stakeholders.

An undesirable ruler may be deposed through non-military ways by voting against him, talking him out, or buying him. Separately or in combination, one party weighs foreign interference and polarised atmosphere to fulfil its partisan ambitions. It has nothing to do with institutionalised constitutional regime or political legitimacy. Such short- sightedness undermines the transition process. The political leaders are hesitating to make a clear break with the old order.

The end of monarchy is now a matter of history; other forces fostering conspiracy and intrigue remain in place. A polarised atmosphere generated through inappropriate means that obstruct the state-building process is still taken as an exercise in democracy. Political forces, whether Maoists, Madhesis or Congressites, must be cautious that even a thumping victory can be overturned in a matter of days through various overt and covert operations. The persistent ripples in Nepali state put a big hurdle in the path of remaking the country into a liberal, democratic and secular state with autonomous and self-sustaining regions.

According to political process theories, a regime with sound programme to gain and retain power cannot be labelled sultanistic. Nevertheless, the chances of sustaining a democratic movement have been adversely affected owing to Koirala’s kleptomania. As a result, room for political institutions and socioeconomic development at grassroots levels are limited. Despite all the adulation, Koirala should have been held responsible for widespread corruption, systematic embezzlement of public resources, irregularities, and political expedience in order to sustain the status quo. This is not to say that successful transition is impossible; however, rights and interests of the people are not being protected though many relish the lives of well-fed slaves.

It is not necessary that the new regime is unaccountable, even though the state under Koirala was Leviathan, characterised by cultural decline and economic backwardness. Although antimonarchy revolt brought Koirala at the helm, his powers became monolithic and favoured only a few in total disregard of commitments made to the people.

Those who hold that a Maoist government would guarantee basic rights and liberties, may be reminded that the Maoist conception of democracy is at best a mix of Marxism, Leninism, and populism. Their ‘socialist patrimonialism’ is a political culture that might result in a highly centralised state with characteristic commitment to democratic politics, which may give rise to a politically negative state of affairs. In any case, republics may be carved with ease but they cannot be organised and settled as easily, and Nepal is no exception.

Unless interest groups agree upon collective actions and the power effectively resides with the voters, it would be naive to assume we have a democratic system in the genuine sense of the term. The fact is that the country is finally going to be free from the Koirala clan; but democracy has yet to swim through many uncharted waters.

Democracy accommodates different ideas and relies on reasoned deliberations to reach a consensus without impeding socio-cultural diversity and institutional settings characterised by values of liberty, or what Habermas calls a ‘new model of social cohesion’ founded on constitutionally established rules. Nepal, on the other hand, is a case of regime change from traditional despotism to inefficient pluralism that does not adhere to social and political norms and values.

Will Koirala’s exit mark a sea change in the cause of representative democracy

in Nepal? Will it promote organisational democracy within the civil society and

enhance citizens’ political capital, i.e. their endowment, sense of empowerment and identity. The distribution of power between state and society must not be abstract; but based on concrete assessments. Any demand for self-determination must be understood well to further the process of democratisation through improvement in public service.

Everyone’s interests should be protected and autonomy maximised. In practice, it may require the state to accept divisible sovereignty like a supermarket rather than nurturing obsolete notions; for failing states tend to give rise to a political vacuum, drawing in outside forces to fill the empty political space for their own demise.

Thapa is professor of Politics, TU